Spain’s Election: Whither the 15-M Movement?

Spaniards are facing a political moment of truth when they go to the polls on 20 December this year. Even the future form of the state appears in question. GEORGINA BLAKELEY traces the lasting impact of the 15-M Movement which erupted so dramatically onto the Spanish political scene four years ago.

15-M picOn 15 May 2011, demonstrations took place in about 50 Spanish cities organised over the internet by Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now) – a collective critical of the quality of democracy in Spain.

Held a few days before the local and regional elections of 22 May, these were protests against the economic crisis, the austerity measures imposed by the Socialist government, the staggeringly high rate of youth unemployment and an unresponsive political system. Slogans such as ‘Homeless, jobless, pensionless, fearless’, and ‘We are not merchandise in the hands of bankers and politicians’ reflected the movement’s concerns.

The arrest of 24 demonstrators at the end of the march in Madrid led to a sit-down protest that same evening in Madrid’s main square, the Plaza del Sol. On Monday, people responded to calls on social media for a mass sit-down which then beccame a more permanent camp.

Since abandoning that initial Acampada Sol, the 15-M Movement has evolved through a mixture of demonstrations, other protest activities such as ‘Surround the Congress’ in September 2012, and the Marches of Dignity which made their way through Spain on foot, stopping in village and town squares to discuss ideas with residents. The first of these took place following the 2011 protests but they have continued.

On 22 March 2014 many tens of thousands of people from all over Spain again converged on the Plaza de Sol in six columns of the Marches of Dignity, bringing with them the experiences of those they had talked to along the way. The most recent marches took place in October this year under the slogan ‘Bread, Work, a Home and Dignity’.

The Movement still holds weekly assemblies in the Plaza del Sol and assemblies at the neighbourhood level across Spain. There are also numerous social self-aid initiatives to address contemporary problems and fill in the gaps left by the decline in state provision. Currently, 15-Mpedia – the movement’s own Wikipedia – contains information about 142 camps in Spain, 309 active assemblies, 435 commissions, 76 active working groups, nine time banks, 70 co-operatives and 309 social centres. These figures are hard to verify but they do suggest a certain level of continued activity.

The 15-M Movement also works with other collectives, such as the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH – a Platform for those affected by mortages) which tries to stop people being evicted from their homes. Indeed, it can be argued that one of the strengths of the 15-M Movement lies in the visibility it has given to other long-standing organisations such as the PAH.

Another strategy of 15-M was the emergence in its second year of sectorial protests. Known as mareas, literally meaning tides, these are multi-faceted demonstrations and protests against successive public service cut-backs that form part of the government’s austerity measures.

In many sectors, these have often provided an alternative to traditional trade union activity as the main trade unions, like the traditional political parties, have become mired in corruption and are increasingly seen as unrepresentative of the population. The marea blanca, for example, protests against cuts and privatisation in the health service, while the marea verde protests against cuts in the education sector. In total there are currently 10 mareas and on the 23 February 2013 the different mareas came out together to protest across Spain under the slogan, ‘Citizen tide against the markets’.

Other more recent activities include the escraches – public denunciations of corrupt officials. These actions include crowd-funding to indict Rodrigo Rato (former Bankia director and former managing director of the IMF) for fraud, and the creation of wiki pages that list all politicians indicted or found guilty of fraud or corruption.

Lasting support

Opinion polls suggest that 15-M continues to have broad support. In the June 2011 ‘Metroscopia Barometer’ for El País newspaper, 64% sympathised with the movement. Although this differed between right-wing Popular Party (PP) voters and left-wing PSOE (Socialist Party) voters, with 46% of the former expressing sympathy with the Movement compared to 78% of the latter, the poll still suggests this is not a purely left-wing phenomenon.

Moreover, this high level of support has been sustained. In the May 2014 Metroscopia Barometer, 56% still expressed sympathy with the movement compared to 51% in May 2012 and 63% in 2013. Similarly, compared to the 81% who felt that the Movement’s arguments were correct in 2011, the figure still stood at 68% in May 2012, 78% in 2013 and 72% in May 2014. So, there is sustained albeit declining support for the movement and its arguments.

Yet, despite this broad support, it is hard to deny that the impact of the 15-M Movement on Spain’s economic and political institutions has been negligible, particularly in light of the subsequent victory of the right-wing PP in the November 2011 general election.

Of more recent concern is the controversial new Citizens’ Security Law and accompanying reforms to the criminal code – also known as the Anti-15-M Law or the Gag Law (Ley Mordaza) – approved on 26 March 2015, which seeks to limit protests by laying out strict guidelines on when and where they can take place, and penalising offenders with steep fines. People trying to stop evictions could be fined as could those using social media to call on people to protest.

These measures are seen as direct attacks on PAH and 15-M respectively. Similarly, taking part in an ‘unauthorised protest’ near institutions such as the Spanish parliament, or disrupting public events, could also be subject to fines.

A watershed?

Nevertheless, it is also hard to deny that 15-M represented a ‘defining moment’ in Spanish politics, marking a ‘before’ and ‘after’ point which continues to shape politics today.

It did so by successfully challenging Spain’s hegemonic political culture, labelled by Guillem Martínez the ‘culture of the transition’, which rests on the institutionalisation of a two-party system, the acceptance of neoliberal economics and the reification of consensus. The power of the 15-M slogan ‘They don’t represent us’ lies in its challenge to this hegemonic culture in which politicians respond more effectively to the imperatives of the global financial markets than they do to the demands of voters.

This was illustrated most powerfully in the constitutional reform of August 2011. Widely seen as the iconic and immovable cornerstone of the hegemonic discourse of the Spanish transition, the 1978 constitution was depicted as ‘untouchable’ by Spanish politicians of all persuasions until they needed to reform it to constitutionalise the orthodox economic policies seen as essential to combat austerity. The hypocrisy of this move was not lost on 15-M.

There are three key signs of change which stem from 15-M’s challenge to the prevailing ‘common sense’.

The first is that Spaniards have stopped being tolerant of corruption. Now, far from being a problem to which many turned a blind eye, corruption has become one of the most important issues identified by Spaniards, in the regular CIS Barometers. This change in Spaniards’ perception of corruption is remarkable and as yet shows little sign of dissipating: for three years (2013-2015), corruption and fraud have been identified as the second most important problem facing Spain after unemployment, yet in 2011, for example, it didn’t figure even in the top seven.

Another indication of political change is the appearance of new terminology to frame and articulate political discourse in Spain. A key example here is the now widespread use of las personas as active agents of social change rather than activists or militants, and the use of la casta to refer to the web of political and economic elites who have shifted power back and forth between themselves.

A final indication is the appearance of political alternatives to the established parties, including but not limited to Podemos. In fact, what is interesting about the Podemos phenomenon is not the obvious fact that it quickly became electorally successful, but how quickly it has itself become superseded by other options, such as Ahora Madrid or Barcelona en Comú which did so well in the local elections of May 2015.

The influence of 15-M could be seen very strongly in the election of Ada Colau, one of the founding members of the PAH as mayor of Barcelona under the Barcelona en Comú label.

Despite recent indications that a right-wing victory is likely in December’s general election, it seems that the 15-M Movement has broken the mould of two-party politics in Spain such that whoever wins will be forced to form a coalition rather than a majority government.

In a March 2015 Metroscopia poll 77% of respondents thought it would be better for Spain if neither of the two dominant parties – the PP and the PSOE – won the next election. This rejection of the established parties is particularly pronounced among the young. Both Ciudadanos and Podemos attract the young while the traditional PP and PSOE attract older voters. This might yet prove to be the most durable legacy of the 15-M.


Dr Georgina Blakeley is a senior lecturer in politics and international studies at the Open University.

She is joint editor of the International Journal of Iberian Studies.

Recent publications include The Regeneration of East Manchester: A political analysis.